Don't believe the rumours: chicken meat is FAR from sustainable


Don't believe the rumours: chicken meat is FAR from sustainable

5 July 2023

Think chicken meat doesn’t have much of an environmental impact? Think again. The industrial farming of broiler chickens is leaving its mark on the planet, and must be addressed if the European Commission is going to reach its targets both for animal welfare and more sustainable food and farming systems.

You’ve probably heard the arguments before. White meat ‘isn’t that bad’ for the planet. Farming chickens is ‘sustainable’. These kinds of claims are commonly touted by industry players who are interested in ensuring the broiler chicken industry continues to grow in Europe and beyond amid a raging climate crisis - but they’re deliberately misleading. 

While on the surface, the data may appear to back them up in some cases (a single broiler chicken, for example, doesn’t produce as much ammonia as a single cow), there’s a big connection between the way in which broiler chickens are reared on factory farms and the climate and nature crises we’re currently facing. Learn more below.

Far more broiler chickens are farmed than any other terrestrial species in Europe… and they’re reared in a very unsustainable way

Broiler chickens are being farmed by the billions across Europe in industrial farming systems, and over 95% of them are ‘fast-growing’ breeds - bred to grow incredibly quickly, so that they reach slaughter weight in just five to six weeks.

Firstly - due to the sheer amount of broiler chickens being farmed - the poultry industry has a big carbon footprint. Even if the impact of an individual chicken is comparatively ‘low’ when put against other farm animals, these poor birds are farmed in far higher numbers than any other species, driving up their impact. In 2020, 11.5 billion chickens were slaughtered in Europe compared to 328 million pigs, 67 million sheep, and 39 million cows. With such an extreme volume of chickens being reared and killed each year, how could this industry not be leaving its mark?

This idea is driven home even more when considering the horrible way broiler chickens are raised on factory farms. Very high stocking densities persist in broiler houses across Europe, which contributes to huge volumes of litter and, consequently, high ammonia emissions. What’s more, as mentioned, the great majority of broiler chickens are bred to grow very quickly - and to assist with this growth, they’re usually fed on unsustainably procured  animal feed.  They also get sick more often due to the problems that come with such an unnatural growth rate and high stocking densities, leading to a higher use of antibiotics in these farming systems - an incredibly unsustainable practice that drives more than 35,000 deaths in the EU each year, according to research.

Most industrially farmed broiler chickens are fed on imported soy, which is driving deforestation 

Another major way in which the broiler industry is contributing to climate change is through how it sources its animal feed.

Many broiler chickens are fed on soymeal, made from soy imported from countries like Brazil and Latin America. To put the scale of this production into context, roughly 76% of the soy grown currently is for animal feed, with the majority being for chickens.

Soy production for animal feed comes at great cost to the planet. To make room to grow this crop and feed the billions of animals in agriculture systems, wild land and forested areas are being cleared at an alarming rate, affecting biodiversity loss, soil erosion, greenhouse gas levels and more. As one of the leading recipients of soy-based animal feed, broiler chicken production is directly connected to deforestation and its awful consequences for nature and the climate. 

Countless broiler chickens are transported across Europe annually

Finally, a shocking number of poultry birds are exported in, around and outside of the EU each year, adding to the industry’s already sky-high pollution levels. 

In 2019, poultry made up 98% of total live animal exports, which made them the most traded farm animal species. What’s more, the sector is riddled with problems that affect animal welfare and the environment. For instance, there are no strict limitations on journey times in the industry as of yet, meaning vehicles can be used for long periods and very frequently (driving up emissions). These poor birds are crammed within these vessels, too, putting them at risk from extreme temperatures and injuries. Something needs to be done.

Chicken meat should no longer be marketed as a ‘sustainable’ food source

There are simply too many chickens being farmed across Europe - being reared in a way that’s bad for the environment and their welfare - for the industry to be considered sustainable. To achieve food and farming systems that are genuinely better for people, animals and the planet, the European Commission must factor the poultry industry into the equation and:

  • Reduce the scale of broiler farming substantially across the EU 
  • Improve welfare standards in the industry, including by limiting stocking densities in broiler houses and banning fast-growing breeds. Studies show that slower-growing breeds, like the Hubbard Norfolk Black and Ranger Gold, are more sustainable as they contribute to lower ammonia emissions and require far less antibiotics
  • Making significant changes to the live animal transport industry, including by banning the export of animals outside of the EU and reducing journey times for different species - for poultry, journeys should last for no longer than four hours
  • Create targets to reduce the consumption of red and white meat and animal sourced products in their food and farming laws, such as by committing to fostering more plant-based food environments while drafting their Framework for Sustainable Food Systems.

Higher animal welfare standards and a transition to more sustainable diets will go a long way to reduce the impacts of animal farming, including the poultry sector specifically. With climate change and nature loss becoming increasingly pressing issues, it’s critical policymakers recognise and act upon the close links between animal welfare, trade, diets and unsustainable food and farming to reduce the impact of the sector and move towards a brighter future for all.

Most of the statistics in this article came from our 2021 No Animal Left Behind report and 2023 ‘External costs of animal sourced foods in the EU’ report